Recycled Landscape.

The isolation of the site made it a fascinating place to photograph.

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I first saw the Brakpan Tailings Dam from the air during a flight approaching Johannesburg. The aircraft had already descended quite low and it was possible to pick up some of the textures in the early morning light. The massive dam in the middle of the dump was an icy blue, reflecting the clear, cold sky above.

I grew up in Johannesburg and there were mine dumps aplenty in almost any direction. As kids we explored and rode our bikes there, ignoring the dangers lurking beneath the unstable, treacherous surface. Later on, when I became involved in photography, shooting in my own backyard was a handy way to hone my skills, but somehow my relationship with the dumps seemed to go beyond the convenience of their location and I have remained fascinated by them ever since.

The Brakpan Tailings Dam was established in 1976 as part of a recycling process to extract the remaining gold from the older mine dumps around Johannesburg. This was ground-breaking technology at the time and it was a huge financial success, but in 2005 it came to an end. Over the years, the gold price had not kept pace with spiraling operating costs and the whole operation was no longer profitable. The tailings dam served no further purpose, but because of its size, it couldn’t simply be done away with. With a footprint of 560 hectares, it was the largest of its kind in the world. As a legal obligation, the mining company implemented a massive rehabilitation programme to prevent soil erosion and contamination of the surrounding rivers and wetlands. By the time I started photographing there, this had not progressed further than the outside perimeters on one side of the dam. The dam and the surrounding expanses of sand on top of the dump had not been affected yet and in the meantime just remained there, exposed to the elements.

The isolation of the site made it a fascinating place to photograph. Unless one stood right on the perimeter it was impossible to see the world below. It is more than reasonable to see this dump as a large, ugly blot on the surrounding landscape, but being elevated so high up transformed this into another planet. With an eerie silence ringing in my ear, the line between ugliness and beauty became blurred.
I spent just over a year working on this site, totaling sixteen trips and about 140 kilometers on foot as I wasn’t allowed to drive onto the dump. Towards the end of my project, the ongoing rehabilitation had not only changed the appearance of the slopes on the sides, but the surface on top as well. I’ve given thought to waiting for a while, letting the elements take their course and then comparing the difference, but that’s for another day.

Equipment:
Leaf Aptus 75 digital back, mounted on a Mamiya 645 body with a wide angle or standard focal length lens.